The Importance of Being Earnest: Act 3

The third act opens in the morning room at the manor house, where Gwendolen and Cecily are waiting to see what Jack and Algernon have to say. Jack and Algernon enter. Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Jack’s brother. Algernon explains that he merely wanted to meet Cecily. Cecily is impressed by the beauty of this answer, though she is not sure whether to believe him. Gwendolen asks Jack why he pretended to have a brother, and instantly supplies an answer herself: so that he might have an excuse to come to town to see her as often as possible. Jack encourages her to believe this. Both women are satisfied by their men’s arguments, but in unison, they announce that they cannot marry the men unless they are named Ernest. Also in unison, the men announce that they are due to be christened that afternoon. The women are moved by what they see as an act of sacrifice and courage, and fall into the arms of their men.
At that moment, Lady Bracknell enters, and the couples spring apart. She found out Gwendolen’s whereabouts from the maid, whom she bribed. She orders Jack to cease all communication with Gwendolen, but Gwendolen and Jack tell her that they are going to marry. Lady Bracknell turns her attention to Algernon, and asks where Bunbury is. Algernon says that Bunbury is dead: his doctors pronounced that he could not live, and so he died. Lady Bracknell remarks that Bunbury must have had great confidence in the opinion of his doctors. Then she asks about the woman whom her nephew Algernon is embracing. Algernon says that this is Cecily Cardew, to whom he is engaged to be married. Lady Bracknell inquires about her family, and Algernon cites three prestigious addresses of the family homes. Lady Bracknell wants proof of their authenticity, and Algernon produces the Court Guides (newspapers giving details of upper-class social events and addresses) of the period. Jack, irritated, tells Lady Bracknell that he also has certificates of Cecily’s birth, baptism, and various childhood vaccinations and illnesses.
Finally, Lady Bracknell asks about Cecily’s fortune. Jack says she is worth a hundred and thirty thousand pounds, a large fortune for the time. Lady Bracknell is impressed, and pronounces Cecily to be a most attractive young lady. Lady Bracknell consents to the marriage. Jack, however, refuses to consent on the grounds of Algernon’s poor moral character. Algernon, says Jack, entered his house on false pretences of being his brother, drank his wine, and ate his muffins. He adds that Cecily, now eighteen, does not legally come of age (the point when a woman could marry without her guardian’s consent) until she is thirty-five. Lady Bracknell sees no reason why Cecily and Algernon should not wait until then to marry. Cecily refuses to wait, so Lady Bracknell asks Jack to reconsider. Jack blackmails Lady Bracknell, saying that if she consents to his marriage to Gwendolen, he will consent to the marriage between Algernon and Cecily. Lady Bracknell says this is out of the question, and gets up to leave with Gwendolen.
Dr. Chasuble enters, ready to christen Algernon and Jack. Lady Bracknell forbids it, claiming it would be “grotesque and irreligious.” Jack tells Dr. Chasuble that there is now no point in their being christened. Dr. Chasuble says he will return to his church, where Miss Prism is waiting for him. At the name of Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell starts in surprise. She asks a number of questions about Miss Prism that reveal that she has known her before, and asks that she be sent for.
At that moment, Miss Prism arrives of her own accord. When Lady Bracknell sees Miss Prism, she glares at her. Miss Prism looks anxious, as if she wants to escape. Lady Bracknell sternly announces that twenty-eight years ago Miss Prism left Lord Bracknell’s house in charge of a baby boy in a pram. She never returned. The pram was later found by the police. It contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel, but the baby had vanished. Lady Bracknell demands to know where the baby is. Miss Prism admits that she does not know.
Miss Prism tells the story of the events of that day. She took the baby out in its pram as usual, and also took a handbag in which she intended to place the manuscript of the novel she had written. In a moment of absent-mindedness for which she has never forgiven herself, she placed the manuscript in the pram, and the baby in the handbag. She accidentally left the handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria railway station.
Jack rushes off to his room in a state of excitement. Noises are heard from upstairs, as if trunks were being thrown about. Jack re-enters, carrying a handbag, and asks Miss Prism if this is the one she was carrying that day. Miss Prism confirms that it is. Jack reveals that he was the baby whom Miss Prism placed in the handbag. He embraces her as his mother. Miss Prism, shocked, protests that she has never been married. Jack, believing her to mean that Jack was her own illegitimate baby, says he forgives her, on the grounds that there should not be one law for men (to whom no social stigma attached for begetting illegitimate children) and another for women. But Miss Prism tells him that he is mistaken, and points him to Lady Bracknell for an explanation of who his mother really is. Lady Bracknell tells Jack that he is the son of her “poor sister,” Mrs. Moncrieff, and thus Algernon’s older brother. Jack is delighted to hear that he has a brother after all, feeling that his pretence of having a brother for all these years has been vindicated. Jack and Algernon shake hands.
The revelation means that Jack, having identified a parent, is able to marry Gwendolen. But Gwendolen still wants to know what Jack’s real name is. Lady Bracknell says that as the eldest son, he would have been named after his father, but she cannot recall what his name was. Jack realizes that as his father was a general in the army, his name should be in the Army Lists. He looks through the records on his bookshelf and discovers that his father was called Ernest John. Jack joyously tells Gwendolen that he is called Ernest, just as he pretended in the past. He is shocked to find out that for all those years when he thought he was lying about his name, he was really speaking the truth. He asks her to forgive him for it, and she agrees that she does. The play ends with three loving couples embracing: Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily, and Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Jack tells Lady Bracknell that for the first time he realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
Analysis of Act 3
Just as the women did most of the men’s wooing for them, they also do the work that allows the men to escape censure and responsibility for their deceptions. In this play, the traditional role of the male as sexual aggressor and the female as passive recipient is reversed: the women largely manage the courtships, proposals, quarrels, and reconciliations. Gwendolen and Cecily are eager to forgive the men and accept their reasons for deceiving them even though they do not really believe them. In this matter, as with the play as a whole, style is valued over substance. Gwendolen agrees with Cecily that the beautiful style of Algernon’s explanation for his pretence of being Jack’s brother is more important than whether it is genuinely meant.
The role of documentation in lending a person respectability (however undeserved) is again emphasized. Gwendolen and Cecily decide to marry Jack and Algernon only if they are named Ernest; the men plan to be christened Ernest and to obtain certificates of baptism, which will instantly render them acceptable to the women. And when Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack about Cecily, in an attempt to cater to her conventional idea of respectability, he offers her the Court Guides listing her family’s addresses and then lists the countless documents that people acquire simply by existing: certificates of baptism, vaccination, and so forth.
The exchanges involving Lady Bracknell provide Wilde with more opportunities for satirical comment on the Victorian English class system. When interrogating Jack, Cecily’s guardian, about Cecily’s suitability as a wife for Algernon, Lady Bracknell begins by asking the conventional upper-class questions about Cecily’s parents and the number and location of their houses. High birth and ‘good’ family are important to her, but tellingly, only the revelation of Cecily’s large fortune convinces Lady Bracknell that Cecily is a suitable match for Algernon. This reflects an important social change in nineteenth-century England. In the wake of the massive wealth created by the Industrial Revolution and the relative decline in the value of the agricultural land that formed the wealth of the old aristocracy, money played a particularly important part in choosing a marriage partner. Only after Lady Bracknell learns that Cecily is wealthy does she appear to her “a most attractive young lady.”
The series of revelations about hitherto unknown relationships (between Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism and Jack, Lady Bracknell and Jack, and Algernon and Jack) parody the Victorian melodrama, which relied upon such revelations for its resolution. Another satirical reference to the popular literature of the time is Miss Prism’s three-volume novel, which was thought to be respectable reading material for Victorian ladies.
Though there are many parallels between the two romantic relationships of the play (one between Jack and Gwendolen, the other between Algernon and Cecily), leading to a symmetrical structure, there are also important differences. When Cecily asks Algernon why he pretended to be Jack’s imaginary brother Ernest, he tells the truth: so that he could meet Cecily. But when Gwendolen asks Jack why he pretended to have a brother, she herself supplies the answer she wishes for in the form of a very leading question: “Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible?” Though Jack only has to say “Yes” in order to keep Gwendolen happy, he cannot do so, undoubtedly because this is too far from the truth even for Jack. The reasons why he invented another self under whose identity he went to town are never given, but they are nothing to do with visiting Gwendolen. So Jack answers duplicitously, in the form of another question: “Can you doubt it, Miss Fairfax?” Gwendolen admits that she does have doubts, but she intends to “crush them.” Thus, her relationship with Jack is founded on falsehood, whereas Cecily and Algernon have reached a place of truthfulness.
In a final ironic twist, Jack acquires an honesty he has by no means earned when his name really does turn out to be Ernest. Previously, he had pretended to be both Ernest (the name) and earnest (meaning sincere) and yet had really been neither. Now, in a strange reversal and moral paradox, it turns out that he is both Ernest and that he has been earnest, or truthful, in spite of his intentions. Jack tells Gwendolen, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” Jack’s life has come to reflect his fiction, emphasizing the supremacy of style over substance that is a recurrent theme of the play. This inversion of conventional values is underscored by the incident in which Miss Prism substituted her three-volume novel for the baby Jack in the pram. Even as a baby, Jack the human being was replaced by a fiction, an image that sets the pattern for the rest of his life. In its elevation of style over substance, and fiction over life, Wilde satirizes the superficiality and hypocrisy of conventional society.